Thoughts on a Life Well Lived


Is Your Training Overly Simple?

Is your training overly simple?

Training with complexity will breed mastery over the simple. The opposite never works.

I do not mean complexity in the context of complicated rep schemes, strange variations or versions of classic exercises, or even a constantly varied program. I mean complexity of stimuli that each individual movement or pattern presents. A type of complexity that is not possible in a gym setting. The type of complexity that is only offered by the natural world.

When living in nature, human movement falls into 5 primary archetypes: running, jumping, climbing, lifting, and throwing. Running is the simplest label applied to the broader archetype of ground locomotion that includes running, walking, crawling, and any variations there of. Many secondary movement archetypes arise from a combination of the primary patterns such as swimming, combatives, and dance.

Most movements that we train are an oversimplification or a complete deviation from these primary functional, archetypal movement patterns. The pull up is a classic example. While the pull up is one of my favorite exercises and an extremely functional fitness training tool, it represents an oversimplification of the climbing archetype.

Most people train only a few versions of the pull up to excess. Their hands only encounter a small range of the possibilities of an actual climbing situation. Even with varying bar diameter, grip width, and hand arrangement, we can still only re-create a small percentage of the possibilities. Think now of the variables when climbing trees or rocks. There are thousands of species of tree and hundreds of varieties of rock. All possess a different size, shape, texture, and surface contour. Each hand placement feels vastly different to the hand and places the hand and arm in a unique position relative to the body. The climbers body must negotiate wider or narrow grips, surface textures, gripping shapes, one hand higher or lower, a sloped, vertical, or inverted climbing surface, or a branch that bends, flexes, and twists. All of these factors create a completely unique pulling load with each hand placement. The pull up variations are endless before we even consider the variations in temperature, wind, humidity, sound, light, and shadow that are possible outdoors. 

This is not an indictment of the pull up. Understand that the pull up is a tool, not the end goal. The pull up serves a climber who wants to build strength very effectively. An exclusively gym-trained athlete with a highly developed pull up cannot expect his/her training to translate to climbing proficiency. However the opposite is true. A highly proficient climber will perform quite well when tested with pull ups. Complexity breeds mastery of simplicity, not the other way around.

Anyone who has trained with me knows that I love pull ups and I use them frequently in my personal movement practice. I classify the pull up as a compound, full-body, and functional movement. I also classify the pull up as an isolation movement. An isolation of a single movement pattern that provides the joints, muscles, and fascial networks involved with the same (or similar) loads with each rep or variation. This singular movement pattern develops only a singular coordinated neurological pattern. 

Pull ups (and the variations) are the most effective tool to develop pulling strength. This strength means little to true functional fitness until it is integrated back into a holistic movement practice.

We can make a similar examination of the power development movements (and every other classic qym exercise for that matter). Power cleans, kettlebell swings, and plyometric jumping are perhaps the best available tools for developing power and coordination in triple extension. Triple extension is the coordinated extension of the hips, knees, and ankles. Speed, power, strength, and timing in this pattern characterize high level running, sprinting, jumping, and many other athletic demonstrations of power.

Power cleans, swings, and plyo jumps are the best tools for developing strength and power through triple extension, but training these movements exclusively will not develop elite level running and sprinting abilities. The true purpose of sprinting is involvement in the food chain, either to acquire food or avoid becoming it. This type of running presents the challenge of uneven ground, inconsistent surface texture or grip, obstacles, twists and turns, and many other unforeseen challenges that must be negotiated in real-time.

Training to develop triple extension will improve a runner’s ability to perform in this setting. Power training alone is not enough to ensure a highly developed running ability until it is integrated back into a real-world running practice.

Your training has given you a quiver of highly-developed skills, patterns, and positions. Your body is a collection of finely-honed tools. Do you use these tools in isolation, for only a singular purpose to continue sharpening them? Or are you a truly skilled artisan that can use all of your tools together to create something incredible?

Gym training is like sharpening your set of chisels. A real-world movement practice is your chance to utilize your tools to craft a beautiful sculpture.

The gym is where you learn all the notes. A real-world movement practice when they come together to make music.

Are you content to continue sharpening your blades, or practicing your scales?

Find an integrative, creative movement practice to become something greater than a sum of many finely-tuned parts. Find a practice that requires you to flow between movements and positions. Find something that makes you connect all the dots and in ways you never a have before. Dance. Wrestle. Climb a tree. Run around barefoot. Go off the trail. Get creative.

Gyms are fine to isolate. Nature is where we integrate and our movement comes to life.